Georgia is on a solid path to EU and NATO, interview

Teimuraz Janjalia Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia

Lithuania-Georgia relationship is strong, and Georgia is on its path to the European Union and NATO membership. Those two strategic aims are enshrined in the Georgian Constitution. Georgia, which is facing similar security challenges, supports Ukraine in its defensive war against Russia. And there are the Russians who “fled” the war at the Russian-Georgian border.

Read an interview with Mr Teimuraz Janjalia – Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Georgia. His areas of responsibility are European integration and bilateral relations with European Countries. Deputy Minister took part in the Eastern Partnership Connectivity Seminar in Vilnius.

On Georgia and Lithuania

Vilnius and Tbilisi have enjoyed a particularly warm relationship for many years. However, these relations have cooled considerably over the last few years. What are the main reasons for this and how can the relationship be thawed?

Georgia and Lithuania have a unique character of long-standing friendship based on shared principles and values and excellent people-to-people relations. We traditionally enjoy close political dialogue and dynamic partnerships in various areas. Furthermore, Lithuania has always played an important role in supporting and promoting Georgia’s foreign policy priorities.

The current volatile situation caused by Russia’s aggressive and unjustified large-scale war in Ukraine once again revealed the need for even closer regular dialogue.

Georgia is increasingly vulnerable in the face of existing external or internal challenges. Therefore, we aspire to deepen engagement with our most devoted partners, Lithuania among them.

I am particularly delighted that our already vibrant relations continued to develop in recent periods as reflected in the expansion of high-level dialogue and intensification of the bilateral visits. I believe it is our shared interest to elevate this positive trend further.

On the EU integration

What were the main reasons why Brussels postponed granting candidate status to Georgia, which it had given to the war-torn country of Ukraine and its neighbour, Moldova?

Georgia has been granted with a European perspective and, thereby has been relocated to the regular enlargement package of countries, which is a very important decision on its own. So now, we are fully focused on reaching the next benchmarks in our EU accession process, and step by step, we hope to advance to the goal of EU membership, which is one of our top foreign policy priorities, incorporated in our Constitution.

Today, we are working hard on implementing the EC recommendations, conditional for acquiring the status of the EU candidate country. We maximize our efforts to reach all targets related to these recommendations as soon as possible. We realize that, first and foremost, it contributes to further progressive development of our society and the country.

Meanwhile, in our European integration process, we try to capitalize on the positive momentum and explore all available avenues for greater and deeper integration. For instance, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are due to become observer country within the Transport Community. We already work with the fellow candidate and pre-candidate countries within the Energy Community. Georgia has recently applied for the Single Euro Payment Area (SEPA), we hope soon to become part of the Free Rooming Area.  Also,  the European Union public procurement market has opened up to Georgian companies. Together with Moldova and Ukraine, we were invited to the informal gathering of the EU foreign ministers (so called “Gymnich”) to discuss some of the highly prioritized issues of our common interests.

The above-listed examples of how we see our gradual integration into the EU that will eventually lead to full membership – constantly approximating and reforming our sectors according to the EU norms and standards and upholding the shared democratic values.

What is Tbilisi’s biggest frustration in moving towards EU membership?

We are very well aware that the EU membership process is a long and complex journey and requires enormous resources and capacities to accomplish the undertaken commitments. What’s essential is that we are ready to overcome whatever challenges we might encounter in the process. Furthermore, popular support towards EU integration in Georgian society, which steadily exceeds 80% already for decades, is a solid asset which keeps us motivated and forward-looking in our future plans.

Having said that, we expect that a merit-based approach from the EU side will be complemented by decisions/actions responding to the geopolitical realities, and that our EU accession will be accompanied by the unwavering support of the EU institutions and the Member States in all its phases.

What is the status of membership of the European Union, what does Tbilisi need to do and what does Brussels need to do for Georgia to regain its status as a Euro-integration star? Who needs to do more?

The June historic decision of the European Council recognizing the European perspective of Georgia marks another milestone in our relationship. A realistic prospect of EU Membership is a strong motivation for our country and our citizens.

We are fully aware that the European perspective is responsible for ensuring the highest political, economic and legal convergence with the EU. Therefore, shortly after the European Council decision, Georgia presented a concrete action plan and launched an open and inclusive process to address the 12 priorities defined by the European Commission. This working process brings together members of the parliament, including the parliamentary opposition parties, the line ministries and the civil society, thus ensuring that the results of the working groups established per priority enjoys the broadest possible support and participation. The working process is in full swing, and concrete results are being delivered. I think Georgia is already showing its resolve to live up to its commitments, as we have been doing before.

We stay firmly committed to demonstrating that our European path is dynamic and our reforms bring results. While gaining thecandidate status is our next immediate milestone to mark, we intend to exploit the full potential of the AA/DCFTA, which is set to open up concrete opportunities for gradual and full integration into the EU Single Market and lead to access to the EU “Four Freedoms”.  

At the same time, we rely on the EU to ensure that the political decision-making is merit-based and reflects progress achieved on this path. I hope that decades-long overwhelming popular support towards European integration in Georgian society will be met with relevant responses from Brussels along the way.

Does the European Parliament’s opinion on Georgia’s deoligarchisation matter to Tbilisi? If so, will any measures be taken? If not, what do you expect in the near future on the road to the EU?

Let me start by saying that “deoligarchization” is not a unique benchmark defined for Georgia; the European Commission’s opinion attributes it to all three applicant countries, with a slight difference in the case of Ukraine, which has adopted a concrete law. Moreover, it’s worth mentioning that it is the first time we have seen it appear in European Commission’s recommendations for Georgia, whereas it was never an issue before in our bilateral track. For consecutive years, Georgia managed to build stable institutions through various systemic reforms, which has been recognized in many reports.

Another important thing I want to underline is that the benchmark of “deoligarchisation” does not have a name tag; therefore, we cannot share any opinion which puts a name tag to this issue. The Commission’s opinion clearly states the purpose of the “deoligarchisation” – “eliminating the excessive influence of vested interests in economic, political, and public life” – is about addressing systemic challenges rather than concrete persons.

Without any exceptions, Georgia has assumed the commitment to implement all 12 priorities – equally, the recommendation on the “deoligarchisation” is being addressed within a specific working group.

On NATO integration

Georgia was the star of integration into the Transatlantic structures. But, unfortunately, this shining star of transatlantic integration is fading rather quickly. If so, could you list the main reasons why?

I strongly disagree with the statement that Georgia is fading as a shining star of transatlantic integration. Now, more than ever, it is clear that Georgia is one of NATO’s most reliable and capable partners, contributing significantly to the shared Euro-Atlantic security despite all external challenges and threats. My country has been knocking on NATO’s door since 2002, and today, as a result of two-decade-long efforts, substantial progress on its Euro-Atlantic integration path is translated into outstanding partnership and the highest degree of interoperability with the Alliance. Moreover, multiple official NATO documents have underlined the country’s significant progress in recent years.

Georgia has more integration tools than any other aspirants have had, including those that are a part of the MAP. Since 2014, the effective implementation of the NATO-Georgia Substantial Package has been a priority of the Georgian Government. In this framework, Georgia has strengthened its military capability and boosted security sector reforms. A vivid demonstration of the dynamic enhancement of interoperability with the Alliance is the adoption of “Tailored Support to Georgia” at the Madrid Summit, which aims to further ensure the country’s defence needs.

For decades Georgia has substantially contributed to Euro-Atlantic security through participation in NATO missions. Georgia was one of the largest overall and the largest per capita contributor  to NATO’s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. Last year, in the aftermath of the Resolute Support Mission completion, Tbilisi International Airport has served as a transit hub during the withdrawal of the coalition forces from Afghanistan, with more than 250 flights operated during this period through our airport.  

Moreover, Tbilisi International Airport has served as the transit hub for NATO aircraft, which evacuated both – military and civilian personnel from Afghanistan. Up to 40 flights have been conducted from Kabul to Tbilisi, and approximately 5000 people have been evacuated. Being part of the mentioned endeavour underlines our strategic vision. It proves that Georgia is able to handle matters of collective defence, security and logistical support successfully and responsibly.

Euro-Atlantic integration remains the top foreign and security policy priority of the Government of Georgia. As a result of constitutional amendments in 2018, it has been inscribed in our Constitution. The significant majority of Georgian people firmly and steadily support Georgia’s goal to become a member of the Alliance. We should never forget that in 2008 Georgia became the first target of Russia’s military aggression, which aimed to disrupt my country’s Euro-Atlantic path. Nonetheless, over two decades of our continuous integration path, Georgia has become an overachiever aspirant of the Alliance.

Today as we stand ready to fulfil our ultimate goal of full-fledged NATO membership, it is existential for Georgia that NATO steps up and translates its commitment made at the 2008 Bucharest Summit into a political decision.

On Georgia and Ukraine

There is a perception that Georgia has imposed relatively weak sanctions on the Russian Federation for its aggression against Ukraine. Could you comment on Georgia’s sanctions against the Russian Federation?

What are the current relations between Georgia and Ukraine?

Georgia and Ukraine are interlinked with a strategic partnership based on centuries-long friendship and strong people-to-people ties. Both countries share the same clear choice of European and Euro-Atlantic integration. On this path, we have closely cooperated within the Association Trio format, on NATO membership, including the Black Sea Security dimension.

Georgia and Ukraine face similar security challenges. In fact, Georgia was the first to experience full-scale Russian military aggression back in 2008 and attempts to change a sovereign state’s borders forcibly. But Russia’s policy of aggression against Georgia started way back in the 1990s, immediately after we regained independence when Russia instigated and was involved in the military clashes in Abkhazia and Tskhinvali region, entailing ethnic cleansing of hundreds of thousands of Georgians from their home. Russia continues its illegal military presence and occupation of Georgia’s Abkhazia and Tskhinvali /South Ossetia regions. It is responsible for human rights violations on the ground that is fully attested by the decisions by the international courts (ECHR and ICC).

Georgia’s support towards Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders is firm and irreversible.

From the beginning of Russia’s full-scale military aggression against Ukraine, Georgia has been demonstrating full solidarity with Ukraine with strong political and diplomatic steps and humanitarian assistance. Ever since, Georgia has initiated, sponsored, and supported around 400 resolutions, statements/joint statements, and other initiatives made or proposed by all major international organizations and institutions supporting Ukraine.

Georgia has also been providing substantial humanitarian assistance to Ukraine since the beginning of the war. The Government of Georgia provided accommodation, necessary items, clothing, food, appropriate medical service (including child psychologist assistance), and school and kindergarten services for the displaced people from Ukraine. In addition, municipal transport, museums, galleries and many other attractions stay free for Ukrainian citizens. Furthermore, the Government having already contributed 7 million USD, pledges to disburse an additional 7 million USD by the end of 2022.

Georgia continues to provide assistance to more than 28 000 Ukrainians currently living in our country. Ukrainian language sectors are launched at two public schools in Tbilisi and Batumi. And in July 2022, the Government of Georgia, in cooperation with the Embassy of Georgia to Ukraine and the City Hall of Kyiv, organized a special holiday programme for a group of Ukrainian children and their parents in Georgia’s Black Sea region of Adjara. And of course, these humanitarian programmes will continue in the future.

It is worth mentioning that unlike most of the diplomatic missions, Georgia’s diplomatic representations in Kyiv, Odesa and Lviv have never left the country or suspended functioning.

Georgia’s position regarding the international restrictive measures imposed against Russia is in full compliance with the international stance. Georgia has aligned with restrictive measures of the EU against Crimea and Sevastopol since 2014. In fact, Georgia, besides Ukraine obviously, was the only Eastern Partnership country that aligned with restrictive measures on Donetsk and Luhansk, in February 2022, including respective amendments issued in October 2022.

The Government of Georgia will not allow using Georgia’s territory and financial system to ease the effect of, undermine or avoid the sanctions. All control agencies are alerted to prevent sanctioned persons or businesses from entering Georgia. The National Bank of Georgia instructed the financial sector on the obligation to fully meet the requirements of the restrictions imposed by international financial institutions.

The Customs Department of the Revenue Service of Georgia carries out strict customs control of all types of goods, both military and dual-use, and products on the sanctions list by all countries imposing those sanctions. Doing business in Georgia is and will continue to be consistent with the requirements of Georgian law as well as with the adopted international decisions.

Important to note that the U.S. State Department’s latest report on the investment climate of Georgia, published on 29 July 2022, states that “the NBG and Georgian financial intuitions act fully in accordance with the financial sanctions imposed by the United States and others on the Russian Federation. Compliance with international financial sanctions is systematically checked during the onsite inspections of financial institutions”.

On Georgia and Russia

The Baltic countries, and Poland, which are part of NATO, have closed their borders to Russian tourists and deserters because they fear their security.

On the other hand, Georgia, 20% of its territory is still occupied by the Russian Federation, does not hesitate to allow in hordes of Russian Federation citizens. So why are the Baltic countries worried about their security and Georgia is not? 

I cannot agree with you on the last question – the very fact that Georgia is far more vulnerable to security threats than the Baltic states is evident since the Russian Federation and Russian militaries occupying Georgia’s territories are stationed on Georgian soil just in few kilometres from the Capital. Therefore, it is incorrect to suggest that Georgia is less preoccupied than Lithuania.

Russia-Georgia state border crossing check-point and the adjacent state border green zones are highly controlled locations. With thousands of people entering or queueing to enter Georgia, the control measures of the Georgian agencies are even more thorough and comprehensive. 

When speaking about an increased inflow of migrants from Russia, we should not forget that many of them are Georgians coming back from Russia and those who have relatives here in Georgia. In addition, of course, there might be migrants fleeing Russia to avoid the announced mobilization and consequent military duty – the fact is that the relevant authorities of the two countries do not exchange information on potential conscripts. 

According to the data of the MIA of Georgia: in the period between 24 February 2022 and 30 September 2022 total of 675 577citizens of RF crossed the Georgian border, and from these 612, 830 have already left the Georgian territory (meaning that Georgian territory mainly was used as a temporary/transit route). 

While defining the entrance regulations, national security interests and humanitarian factors prevail. Here, let me again underline that a big part of the entrants is of Georgian origin.

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